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"We need to transform the culture within SAPS and the SANDF"

- Kemantha Govender

The Wits School of Governance hosted a webinar which looked at the impact of militarisation in SA since the lockdown started in March 2020.

The deployment of the military during the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa is a good thing because it means the country is using its resources. However, the abuse inflicted by some members of South African Police (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is highly problematic and requires greater scrutiny and accountability.

This view was discussed in more detail by panellists, Associate Professors William Gumede and Erin McCandless who raised a number of interesting points. The conversation was facilitated by Rekgotsofetse Chikane. All three academics are based at the WSG.

McCandless said there are about 30 documented cases reported involving SAPS and the SANDF and most took place in townships. There are cases in which citizens have been humiliated despite President Cyril Ramaphosa asking that interventions to enforce the lockdown should be carried out with compassion and kindness.  South Africa was identified by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights along 14 other countries where human rights violations associated with COVID-19 restrictions were most troubling

“In Hungary, we see a rule by decree by the president and in Poland we see public restrictions on protests and at the same time the ruling party is rolling back on reproductive rights. In the Philippines, the president is ordering the police to shoot dead anyone that does not obey the lockdown restrictions,” said McCandless.

Gumede noted in his early observations that countries that took a more democratic approach in their response to fighting COVID-19 seem to be enjoying more success as compared to countries that are applying more autocratic measures. He did however acknowledge that some would argue that China for example achieved effective results which came from autocratic interventions.

Both McCandless and Gumede spoke about the importance of accountability, transparency and communication as the State continues to use law enforcement organisations. They said there must be oversight for these measures implemented by government. Gumede suggested that people should report wrong or abusive behaviour and distribute this information on social media so that the complaints are publicised. It is vital that parliamentary oversight committees act in the interest of citizens and where necessary people should use the courts. They said government, to help foster trust with its citizens, should provide updates on the investigations on the reported abuse cases and reconciliation with the affected families and communities should also take place.

Aside from addressing and correcting demographics disadvantages within SAPS, the SANDF and other institutions, Gumede said there needs to be a shift in the culture.

“We have not transformed the culture within SAPS and SANDF… We have not made it a human rights culture and we have not built a new type of policing where respect is at the centre – but this is not just limited to the SAPS and the SANDF,” said Gumede.

“Transformation has to be geared towards a democratic culture. The military is there to defend… that is the purpose, but they can work towards creating a military that teaches and engages as well,” said Gumede.

Both the academics emphasised the importance of ongoing capacity building with the SANDF and SAPS but also South Africa's responses to medical crises. They suggested that the military and police should be trained on how to communicate with people and educate them on appropriate behaviour. They also spoke about how government can improve on more coordinated efforts to respond to a crisis. For example, the military because of their mobility could be used to distribute food in areas that are suffering from shortages.

At the same time, McCandless said that it is equally important to hear about the positive stories.